Small Wars Journal

A Victory for America’s “New Approach to War”?

Thu, 10/20/2011 - 6:20pm

The way the United States have fought in Libya is already proclaimed to be a “new American approach to war”, but that is premature. The way the American armed forces will focus their attention in the future, following the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, is still up for discussion. The approach should rather be seen as an adaptation to an international and domestic situation in the United States which warranted a different American approach than what we have previously seen.

Qaddafi has been killed, the war is won. Or is it? We still don’t know.

Reading The New York Times article by Mark Landler and David Leonhardt, the war might not be over entirely, but it is still portrayed as a great victory for a “new American approach to war”, which through the use of “few if any troops on the ground, the heavy use of air power, including drones” [1], eliminates America’s enemies from afar, and at minimum expense for the United States.

But I would say, it is too early to proclaim the kind of commitment we saw from the United States in Libya, as a new approach to war.

It is still not clear what kind of warfare the United States military is going to pursue in the future after its long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As I see it, there are three tracks the American military can follow:

  1. Continuing the newly rediscovered counterinsurgency and big involvement track
  2. Follow the “few if any troops on the ground, the heavy use of air power, including drones” approach
  3. Revert back to its old traditional conventional approach, focusing on big-unit warfare

Which one of these tracks it is going to be, that is the interesting question for the future of the American military.

Continuing the focus on counterinsurgency is unlikely given the economic situation in the United States, and the stress the armed forces have been under in the last 10 years.

The question is then, is the United States going to continue fighting dictators and terrorists by using air power, and “lead from behind” as it was done in Libya, and with great success one might add. Does that not also present the risk of dragging the United States into situations like Iraq and Afghanistan once again, because American intervention becomes necessary for whatever reason? That might be the fear in the Pentagon, and because of that, the military might turn to the third track listed above, renewed focus on conventional big-unit warfare.

So to call the American commitment in Libya, the “new American approach to war”, might be stretching it. Rather it should be seen as an adaptation to the given situation. The American approach to Libya was facilitated by the situation both internationally and domestically in the United States. An international coalition arose to fight in Libya, a coalition willing to take the lead from the United States, which might have helped the “lead from behind” scenario take place, as well as an economic situation in the United States, which could not bear a large scale commitment in Libya.

These factors are what lead to the way the United States has acted in Libya, rather than it being a “new approach to war”, because we really do not know, yet, how the American military is going to focus its attention in the future. That is still up for debate…




Fri, 10/21/2011 - 10:34am

There is first the question of "ways" - as in is this a new way of warfare. No, it isn't. Adding air power, intel, technology or military advice as force multipliers for irregular proxies is not really new. Remember RMA or the Reagan Doctrine? It is an *economical* use of force though in the sense of trying to maximize your strategic gains with minimum costs - in this instance, regime change.

That is ok if you don't much care what comes afterward or can live with the costs of defeat or stalemate. If you can't live those things and would, if faced with defeat or stalemate, escalate the use of force to the next level then it might be better to employ enough force from the inception and shorten the duration of the conflict. Few nations benefit from long wars.

The next question is "Ends" - really a policy question. Why are we doing this? Is it in our interests to do so? What is our long term strategy? How does this action affect other players perception of our future moves/intentions since we do not act in isolation from the wider world?

Adopting a policy doctrine, like R2P, that mandates *action* that could take place *anywhere* at *any* moment in reaction to events without forethought amounts to enshrining moment-by-moment crisis management as a virtue. It as about the most anti-strategic mindset imaginable

I don't think there is necessarily a single American approach to war. Rather, I think, as Mr. Ulrich has pointed out, that the US tends to change its doctrine as necessary to meet the given situation. Granted, we don't always change quickly but to say that there is "AN American Way of War" is probably not accurate. We simply have many different approaches in our "quiver" that we can employ as best we see fit and to modify as required. What we have seen in Libya is not new. We saw it previously at the start of OEF and this was a significant improvement over what we did in OAF, but only an imporvement not a change.

The problem of course is that doctrine influences how you train and how you equip your forces. If we don't identify a "single coherent doctrine" such as Air-Land Battle or COIN or "UAV-emphasized, air power support to rag tag militias", you make it that much harder to decide what to buy and how to use the limited time you have to train your forces.

One could argue that this may require different doctrine for each service. USMC, you guys focus on the COIN bit based on your history with "Small Wars." Army and Navy, you focus on the big war campaign--train and equip for that. Air Force, you've got the "UAV/militia" piece aided by SOCOM. Each develops the doctrine, purchases their forces in relation to that doctrine, and then trains their forces for that mission. However, they need to be prepared to roll-in on someone else's doctrine (which should be written to anticipate this sister service plus-up) and execute as necessary in support.

Where possible, overlap should be encouraged. COIN requires a considerable amount of UAVs, so that works for the Air Force doctrine as well. Air power will need to be flexible enough to both support CAS (COIN and Militia) but also able to support the big fight (stealth/IADS defeat). That's a little tougher but can still be done with the appropriate flexibility/modularity built into the design of the aircraft. COIN requires a considerable manpower investment, more so than can be expected of the USMC but as has been demonstrated, though painfully, the Army can dismount and play the COIN role. So long as they have a useful doctrine to transition to once they step out of the Paladin.

Training would probably be the toughest nut to crack, IMHO. But it may be a time share arrangement. Each unit spends 3/4s of their time focused on their primary doctrine and 1/4 alternating between the other missions as necessary (the UAV/Militia bit is going to require considerably less from most USMC/Army units and the COIN mission has less impact, in general, on the Navy and most of the Air Force).

But ultimately, I think it comes down to forgetting about this notion of an American Way of War. The old joke has always been that we don't follow our own doctrine. I don't believe this is a limitation so much as an acknolwedgement that we adapt to the situation as required (though slowly at times).